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One year after the coup, the civil war in Myanmar leaves the country’s future hanging in the balance

Twelve months after Myanmar’s democratically elected government was overthrown in a military coup, Myanmar has effectively been plunged into a widespread civil war, with no end to the fighting and displacement of thousands of civilians in sight.

The civil war in Myanmar has internally displaced more than 350,000 civilians and around 30,000 have become refugees in neighbouring countries — mostly in Thailand and India — as the health, education, and economic systems in Myanmar face a near-collapse. Large portions of the country have fallen into the hands of various local civilian defence forces who took up arms to defend themselves and civilians after the brutal military crackdown on peaceful protesters last year.

One year ago, newly elected representatives were gathered in the capital Naypyidaw to attend the new year parliamentary session of Myanmar, when the military junta (Tatmadaw) staged their coup. The military, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, detained President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, along with ministers and their deputies and many members of Parliament.

Immediately after the coup occurred on 1 February 2021, the military junta was met with widespread civilian resistance. The military, it seems, was neither prepared for the extent of the protests across the country nor the resolve on the part of the ordinary citizens who took to the streets.

Several days later, seventy members of parliament from the National League for Democracy (NLD) defied the military take over and took an oath of office in Naypyidaw, pledging to serve the people under the people’s mandate. On 5 February, 300 elected legislators formed a committee to conduct parliamentary affairs, which became known as the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH).

Then, the following day, more than 20,000 protestors took part in large-scale protests against the military coup in Yangon. The protest movement quickly spread across the country. Thousands of civil servants, ranging from healthcare workers and teachers to the military and police, joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and the labour strike spread quickly to other sectors, most notably the financial sector and banks.

Citizens across the country joined protest actions — such as striking pots and pans in unison every night to object to the military coup. This symbolic act, reminiscent of many recent protest actions around the world, also ties into Burmese religious traditions that associate such loud noise with driving away evil spirits.

Another protest action on 17 February 2021 brought Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, to a standstill as staged car breakdowns blocked major streets of the city — a move that ingeniously protested the junta’s coup, physically blocked the movement of security forces, and prevented civil servants from going to work.

The military responded with a brutal crackdown on 20 February 2021, killing two protesters in Mandalay. The military junta quickly received an array of logistical and technological support from China and Russia.

On 16 April 2021, the National Unity Government (NUG) was formed to represent the interests of the people of Myanmar against the military junta. To protect the shadow government and begin the struggle to regain control over the country, the NUG announced the formation of a People’s Defence Force on 5 May 2021.

By May 2021, the military had killed more than a thousand civilians through targeted sniper fire during protests, abductions, and indiscriminate violence. The military believed a swift and hard crackdown would deter protesters and quell resistance. However, the brutality shocked many, especially ordinary Bamar, who had hitherto not been the target of military violence. Ethnic minorities have long fought the military along Myanmar’s fringes, where some ethnic armies have held territory and parallel governments for some time. The indiscriminate violence did not shock battle-wary ethnic minorities, but struck at the heart of Bamar hopes for reforms and a democratic transition. Thus, the brutality of the crackdowns has helped to grow the People’s Defence Force — local armed civilians who are determined to protect civilians from the military junta.

The broader military boycott campaign has been one of the most effective methods to oppose the coup, not least because the military in Myanmar has extensive commercial interests ranging from banking to telecommunications. The boycott has dramatically curtailed the domestic income of the military junta. In addition, concerted actions have begun to dismantle critical military-owned infrastructure. For example, we have heard several reports of the dismantling of military owned Mytel mobile phone towers and the repurposing of the scavenged materials into weaponry by civil defence units.

The military had promised elections for 2022, but after Senior General Min Aung Hlaing appointed himself prime minister, the date was pushed back to 2023. He attended a Special ASEAN Summit in Jakarta on 24 April 2021 where a five points consensus was agreed. The summit was meant to act as a circuit breaker, stop the violence, and start a dialogue between the parties. However, in Myanmar things only escalated.

President Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi meanwhile have been held incommunicado in a house in Naypyidaw, whereas hundreds of ministers, deputies, MPs, and political activists have been detained and sentenced to many years hard labour in a secret military court.

The junta was excluded from the next ASEAN Summit in October due to the lack of action on the five consensus points. The Tatmadaw is showing no willingness for restraint and is doubling down on their efforts to eradicate dissent — by whatever means necessary. The people of the town of Thantlang in Chin state know what that looks like. The town has been at the centre of the military’s punitive excursions into conflict areas. The town is now depopulated, as all residents have fled to the hills, and large sections have been burnt to the ground in a show of force by the military. But this sort of relentlessness and vindictive action has only resulted in a growing sentiment across the whole country that the military dictatorship must be ended once and for all.

Ordinary citizens have joined ethnic armies to train, and defence forces are arming themselves for an escalation in violence across the country. Some ethnic armies are increasingly speaking in absolute terms, with one commander we spoke to exclaiming that they are determined to fight the military regime to the end in order to establish a new constitution for the country that all ethnic peoples can accept. He noted that now is the best time to fight the regime once and for all.

The fight remains asymmetrical with the military junta possessing air superiority and much more firepower. But as other conflicts in the region have shown, larger armies can be overcome with guerrilla warfare tactics and sheer determination.

When asked how ethnic armies were fighting a much stronger military force, a Chin Defence Force commander said: “We hit [the Tatmadaw] well in the ten-month battles although our weapons are not matched with what the military uses. However, our morale is high and slowly we are getting weapons as we coordinate with a lot of ethnic armed organisations in this fight.”

The country is heading towards all-out conflict across the country, after the NUG launched a “defensive war” on 7 September 2021. More intense fighting is set to occur across the country as the NUG coordinates with large ethnic armed organisations and people’s defence forces. Success or failure to coordinate and bring together the diverse groups will be pivotal. Ethnic armies continue to demand a federal system that gives them autonomy in their regions — something the NLD had supported but never delivered. The unity of the country may be at stake if political solutions cannot be found between opposition allies.

Over the last few decades, the military has successfully continued British colonial “divide and rule” tactics to keep ethnic armies divided and conflicts localised. The current strategies seem to unite the disparate groups and have the potential to create a substantial resistance in terms of number of fighters and resources they have available to them.

One issue has been the ready supply of weapons and ammunition. Crackdowns in neighbouring Thailand have slowed the supply of weapons and ammunitions with prices increasing due to the high demand and limited access to Myanmar for such supplies. Automatic rifles that could be bought for US$500 a year ago now cost more than US$5,000. The ethnic armies and people’s defence forces have not been successful in engaging international or regional actors to provide this important “lethal aid” — a term that has become prominent as we learn of current US support for the Ukraine. The democratic forces in Myanmar continue to hope and wait for such external support. To many inside Myanmar, their neighbours and the West is failing them.

The past year has completely changed the lives of millions of people in Myanmar; hopes and dreams of economic participation and democratic reforms have been brutally dashed, lives have been lost, and a new generation has come of age fighting for their country’s future.

Simon Sang Hre is Managing Director of Chindwin News Agency. 

Gerhard Hoffstaedter is Associate Professor in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland.

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